"I knew from my other third-world travels that you really can't expect anything," Helander says. This time, though, she and her dancers were in search of more than cultural exchange: Their trip to Foutaka Zambougou, a large, hunger-stricken Dogon village of 1,500 to 2,000 inhabitants, was also a goodwill mission sponsored by the Mali Assistance Project, a local nonprofit. Zambougou is also the hometown of Abdoul Doumbia, a master drummer now living and working in Boulder who went with the group.
Helander's MAP assignment was to take water samples in preparation for an overhaul of the town's water system. "I had anticipated that I would be more seasoned toward the poverty there, but I wasn't" she says. Greeted by children with swollen bellies and runny noses, Helander and crew had a difficult time feeling they could even make a dent in the suffering they observed. "It's not a place people go visit," Helander notes, though she unreservedly admits she came away from Zambougou with priceless cultural experiences.
"We had drumming and dancing classes every day, and, of course, they have no studios -- you were just dancing out in the dirt and heat every day," she says. "That was a real challenge for me -- I have Nordic blood and blond hair. I never found out how hot it was. I didn't want to know." Now, Helander will premiere dance works spawned in the dirt of Mali during a two-weekend run at Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts. And she hopes those works will give her sheltered American audiences a real sense of what life is like in Zambougou.
"The first piece is about the time of day when we did the dance classes: That's when there were no cultural differences," Helander recalls. Conversely, other pieces will focus on the differences -- from a male troupe member's reaction to men holding hands to a look at the effects of Western encroachment on Malian culture. Yet another piece is about blacksmiths, who in Mali hold a special societal rank.
"They're not just blacksmiths, they're also healers," Helander explains. "They do ritual dances, they do circumcisions, they act as matchmakers. If you're in need of rain, you go to a blacksmith." Helander visited a blacksmiths' market with video camera in hand. "With every different thing they were making, each group had their own groove. I stood there long enough to record all those different grooves." She brought back the recordings and turned them over to Boulder musician Tom Wasinger: "I thought, 'Wow! Tom will go nuts over this,' and he did: He did an awesome score to it."
The program's closing works range from an impressionistic look at village life -- of which Helander says, "It's not a real technical piece; it's more like watching a painting move" -- to a concluding section inspired by Malian ritual, which doesn't discern, Western-style, between the natural and supernatural worlds. And Helander hopes her segmented views of a very different place provide audiences with a doorway into the Malian world, rather than a concrete pronouncement of what Mali is all about. "While I was there, I learned some of the African vocabulary. But, still, the last thing I want to do is throw a bunch of white girls up there to hash it out on stage -- it's not about that," Helander maintains. "It's meant to be more of a reflection of our trip: As with all my other cross-cultural studies, I never tried to be the culture. I just don't dare."